Interviewing with a reporter i.e. Fact First Aid: archaeology and the press part 2

Posted on August 19, 2014


It has happened! After years of slaving away, you get a call from a reporter interested in interviewing you about your work. What do you do? In this post I will take you through the dos and don’ts of interviewing with the press. Or, as I like to call it, Fact First Aid.

Context Context Context

In the first post in these series I talked about the process of making a news article. To put the interview into context of that process for you- almost all interviews happen during the write up phase of news articles, NOT during the researching portion*. That means a journalist has already done some research or was given an idea. They have taken it to their boss and got approval or their boss gave it to them. That means the story has already been created and approved.

Fact First Aid

Lets, just take a moment to pause and reflect on that last fact. What if you went to your boss and said you would do something and then did something completely different? When a reporter is pitching an idea to their boss they are not saying, ‘Hey, I would like to investigate this’. They are saying, ‘I am going to write you this story’. Just like with your boss, there has to be a damn good reason to not do the work that was promised. So when a reporter contacts you they have already created the framework of the story. You are there to fill it in e.g. give some stats, or a quote (I’ll discuss in another post why they need quotes). At best you will be giving the first, and probably only, aid to the reporter to straighten out the facts. Take that responsibility seriously.

Step 1: ‘Archaeology interview – urgent – Independent on Sunday’

A few weeks ago I was contacted for this article in the Independent- Britain must dig deeper to save its archaeology.  That is the title of the email I received at 9:09am on a Saturday morning from the journalists. Yes, Saturday for the paper on that Sunday (see my post on the process). Many times you will get a request and if you do not respond within a few hours, or minutes, you will lose your chance to be involved.

Step 2- Do you want to be involved?

If the reporter has not already told you, ask what the article is about and what they want from you. Be prepared to make a split second decision- do you want to be a part of this article. Again, think of the process of making a news article, it is highly unlikely you can get them to redo their article. So decide if you want to be part of it- homosexual cavemen, baby sacrifice, etc. – or not. In my case this is what the journalist told me- ‘Essentially the piece is using the festival as a hook to look at wider issues – less development led work, less university applications and funding, and greater competition for smaller pots of local and charitable grants.’  I thought I could contribute to this subject and so I said yes. Many times people contribute to be the only voice of reason but it is ok to say no- especially if you are afraid it will reflect badly upon you.

Step 3- Get it in writing

After, I decided to be a part of the article I sent her this message- ‘If it is easier you can send me the questions and I can respond. If not we can set up a time to do a quick phone or Skype chat.’ If at all possible, ask them to email you some questions so you can respond in writing- which is the advice everyone else gave on my last post. Essentially, it ensures you are not misquoted … too badly.

Edit– Adrian who is a journalist has this to say about getting it in writing–  ‘I disagree with his insistance that journalists send over questions – this always gives the impression that the interviewee doesn’t know what he/she is talking about, doesn’t allow for a fluid interview and, more to the point, takes up time – but it is a solid primer.’ The advice I give is one way of doing it and by no means the only way. Preferably, you get your quotes in a press release- I talk you through how to do this– and don’t have to worry about this too much.

Also- Sam made the comment- ‘Seriously, “if at all possible, do it in writing” is such key advice – otherwise, you will spend ten times as long failing to clear up the mess as the journalist spent making it.’

Writing or not might, is up to you.

Be quick, be yourself, be short

Be yourself, don’t try to be witty if that is not who you are. Be as short as possible. Each question should be answered with only a sentence or two. Most articles are only 350 words long. They are not going to devote 300 of those words to you. I got asked this question at 10:15am

“I would like to ask you – in very, very simple terms – and perhaps just a few sentences: What are the main problems are in archaeology at the moment, and whether you think the situation is getting better or worse?”

I responded, after seeing it at 10:30am, with these quotes at 10:45am-

“Unfortunately, archaeology, as a profession, is poorly paid for the level of education archaeologists have. 94% of archaeologists have a degree, 40% have a Master or PhD but entry level positions only pay 17,000 a year.”

It got turned into this non-quote-

Indeed, while 94 per cent of archaeologists have a degree, and 40 per cent have a masters or PhD, entry-level positions pay only £17,000 a year, and most of these are temporary.

I did slightly better with is quote-

“Many archaeologists don’t make enough to pay taxes. The average archaeologists only lasts about five years before they leave the profession or get a permanent job, the latter is very hard to do.”

Which became:

“Poor job prospects and even poorer pay is exacerbating the problem. “Many archaeologists don’t make enough to pay taxes,” said Doug Rocks-Macqueen, a consultant for Landward Research Ltd. “The average archaeologist only lasts about five years [after training] before they get a permanent job – which is hard to do – or leave the profession.”

Not exactly what I said but pretty close. If it had not been in writing I am not sure how it would have turned out. Also- notice the time frame- 15 minutes. Be prepared to have about that much time to respond.

Providing Resources

Sometimes a reporter will ask for more information to read. For the love of all things archaeological do not send them your full journal article or report. They don’t have the time to read it, or the background to decipher it. Do send highlight sections or if you do send them your journal article/report give them page numbers and what they need to read. Again for that article I got this request-
“I also wondered if you might be able to direct me toward figures about the decline of students studying archaeology in the UK?
I gave her the page of the Profiling the Profession report that had that information. Not the whole 200+ page report.

Name Title

Decide what you want to be called and who you will represent e.g. university, work, etc. When you send your quotes send that info too.

Step 4- Read the Article

After the interview it is unlikely the reporter will contact you again about it. You get to read it the next day in the news outlet. Don’t take it personal, the reporter will be on to their next story they have to write. In my case, that reporter published another article in that same issue; she was already on to the next story. I actually emailed right after I answered her questions to say I screwed up the numbers, 47% UK archaeologists have an MA or PhD. But, by then it was too late, the wrong numbers got printed. Make sure you respond with the right facts. After that, all you can really hope for is that the article comes out decent, maybe something worth sharing with your friends.

Other Resources

Alison Carter (who blogs at the wonderful Alison in Cambodia) alerted me to this article she wrote on this topic- Speaking to the Press for Scholars

Well worth the read.

Next time…

In the next few posts I will talk about how you can be involved in creating the story, not just being the filler. Part 3 looks at what makes and good news story and Part 4 shows you how to turn that story into a news article.


*The exception to this is if a press release goes out and your name is on it as a contact person. They might contact you to get a few more details before they pitch it to their editor, or if it is TV their producer.

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